by Matt Smith . . .
“Gotta get your new tuxedo pressed / Gotta sew a button on your vest / ‘Cause tonight you wanna look your best / Someone’s back in town!”
The someone in question is not Lulu, however, as the song goes, but Broadway’s own Gavin Creel, making a grand, post-COVID return to the live stage, as the first of three in a special series spotlighting Broadway’s best, taped on location last fall at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse and airing on PBS throughout the winter season.
He’s performed everywhere from Tennessee and Indiana to California and Colorado, but there’s no question he’s overjoyed to be playing from (as close as he could get to) his home base. His love for New York City — especially given his own self-doubt amid his travels, and his tumultuous journey to get here and find success — is palpable from the moment he steps on stage, and he wholeheartedly aims to share that with his audience, both in the theater and at home. He’s beaming – in part, naturally, because he missed the crowd, while we were hunkered down in hibernation – but as he speaks of his journey, the core around which his show is so brilliantly and beautifully constructed, it’s evident he’s so gosh darn proud of how far he’s come.
Though rooted in the classics, both of the Main Stem and the American songbook, his inventive set list maintains a distinctly modern vibe, and he navigates it with ease. He knows he’s old fashioned, as he sings, but it’s no matter; backed by a rockin’ six-piece band and aided by pitch-perfect orchestrations and musical direction from the singular Mary-Mitchell Campbell, his suave smoothness flows effortlessly from the sleeves of his dusty rose tuxedo jacket, his natural charm and charisma enriching every note.
He turns each song on its head, infusing it with his own creative spin; first, he reworks the R&H classic “I Have Confidence” to recap his experience in a particularly daunting dance call; in the middle, he mashes together a trio of classic crooners in tribute to his grade-school chorus teacher later, his rock-infused pop take on “Something Wonderful” helps to accentuate that universal message — evident in the lyrics — of accepting someone for who they are. He even sneaks in an original tune, written as part of a larger commission project for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And, of course, he comes full circle, completing his journey and capping it all off with his breakout hit from the show that gave him his Broadway debut. In short, he’s “got it good,” and he’s shouting it out into the universe.
What’s more? He doesn’t take himself too seriously; in between songs, he pokes fun at his age (“What is TikTok?”) and his hairdo (“I like to call [it] Draco Malfoy/Legolas/Viserys Targaryen chic!”), while simultaneously censoring his unbridled, mind-of-its-own pottymouth for PBS.
But the most compelling element is the undeniable sense of hope, reassurance, and encouragement that emanates from his spot on the stage.
“None of us have to be finished. We don’t have to be done,” he says, about his goal when crafting his Met piece, from which he samples his original “Unfinished World.” “We don’t have to be perfect or know we are at any given moment. We can just try. And that’s enough.”
It’s an incredibly reassuring message, especially for those of us artists struggling to create at such a volatile, uncertain time. Again, as he sings, something’s coming. In fact, we’re on the precipice of something great (if only these damn variants wouldn’t stand in our way!) and his assuring tone lets us know we’re in good hands. Broadway, New York, and live performance are all back and buzzing, and it won’t be long until they’re all back to their regular performance schedule and rightful place as New York quintessence.
That’s what the city means to him. And as we’re swept up in the poignant lyrics of his thoughtfully chosen encore – Peter Pan’s ode to home – we come to realize New York is Creel’s Neverland. It’s his happy place “where dreams are born” (quite literally, in his case) and time stands still… his place of solace to come when things are bleak, because he knows, if he looks in the right places, “his heart will fly on wings” even in hard times. Just like Peter in Neverland, Creel’s a kid here eternally. No matter his age or responsibilities to the world, he can be whatever he wants to be, living openly and free of judgment.
And given that, while his concert is a love letter to that place, he also aims to encourage us, his audience, through the auspices of his story, to seek out our own place – wherever it may be.
Don’t sit there waiting for our wallowing in the rain… grab life by the collar, have the confidence to “stop the doubt, dream of the things you are seeking” and seize every opportunity you can — whenever, wherever, even in a pandemic. Don’t let the parade pass by.
And don’t be unnerved that you may not have it all figured out before you start. We are all unfinished, and that’s okay. And it’s okay to sit in that — especially given the events of the last two years. Be scared, be nervous, but be excited to explore.
Creel was – who wouldn’t be, after all? But he leapt… and found a career – his dream career, at that – a family, and a forever home. His balm, his haven, his Neverland. If he can ultimately find his way through this “city of strangers,” there’s hope for you as well. Just keep on thinking those lovely thoughts.
Gavin Creel’s self-titled solo show was performed at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court) in Westport, CT last Fall. The evening was recorded and aired January 7th, 2022 on PBS, as part of the network’s ongoing Stars on Stage series; it is available to stream through February 20th. For more information, visit www.pbs.org.
Lead Photo: Carol Rosegg